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Uhura’s Sisters: Women in Science Fiction

The Queens of the Genre

Science Fictions best women authors and female characters


We love science-fiction here at the MBRB Head Quarters and especially so in the last few years. The genre has seen a proliferation of women characters in both  books and movies, and nothing pleases us more than little girls who adore Gamora or Katniss Everdeen or Tris or the Black Widow, because these women are smart, self-sufficient and seriously kick ass.

But once you’re done reading your YA dystopian fantasy dujour, or watching the latest blockbuster (which, incidentally still has a male superhero as its lead protagonist) , what next?  Here are some suggestions, old and new.

Great Science Fiction Books by Women Authors

Handmaid’s Tale- by Margaret Atwood


While Margaret Atwood herself resolutely refuses to be classified as a genre or sci-fi writer, her dystopic fantasy may be one of the best realised science fiction works of all time. This depressing portrait of a future where a woman is reduced to little more than her sexual or reproductive function is both unnerving and oddly familiar. Every time we read about a regime which believes it has the authority to decide on a woman’s reproductive rights, we can’t help but remember the Republic of Gilead and its denizens Offred and Serena Joy. Recommended reading for women of all ages, and for men who want their science fiction with a bite.

Noughts and Crosses- by Malorie Blackman

“People are people. We’ll always find a way to mess up, doesn’t matter who’s in charge.”

We have recommended Malorie Blackman in the past for her quiet inversion of racism in the Noughts and Crosses series. Hers is a world where the dark-skinned Crosses wield all the power, while the pale-skinned Noughts rebel in vain. But this YA series is worth reading as more than just an anti-racism parable. In the multi-generational saga of Sephy Cross and her daughter Callie Rose,  she creates women who transcend their colour and gender to be a voice of reason and who-in their own ways- make the two halves of the world meet. While we wish that the book didn’t fall into the YA trope of romance-over-plot in later installments,it remains an interesting read.

A Wrinkle in Time- by Madeleine L’Engle

“We know you have a great mind and all, Mother, but you don’t have much sense.”

Unlike with CS Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle’s overt Christian themes never spooked us off her books. At the end of the day she told a rollicking yarn about good and evil, light and darkness, and a thingamajig called the Tesseract which has since been reproduced in different names and versions in countless other books. If you are a twelve year old math geek who badly wants to be accepted but at the same time believes she is too cool to ever completely fit in, then the adventures of Meg Murry should be right up your alley. We also love how every woman character in the book influences Meg’s personality- be it her scientist mother or the Mrs. Whatsit, Who and Which who act as the Obi Wan Kenobi figures to Meg’s journey.  And we absolutely adore her relationships with her siblings, whose descriptions hew so close to our own lives!

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

Although The House on the Strand doesn’t have the reputation or legacy of a Rebecca, it is an enjoyable read in its own right. The story of Dick Young, who becomes addicted to a drug that transports him back into the 14th century, remains a favourite because of just how faithfully it follows sci-fi tropes. Dick cannot influence the lives of Roger and Isolda in the past however much he tries. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming increasingly fascinated by the idea of this past to the extent that he can barely bring himself to engage with his present day family. And while the book employes a lot of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo to describe the provenance of the drug, it is all ultimately in service of a more poignant story about addiction and its effects on the hero’s psyche.

Our favourite part of THOTS though may just be its denouement- one that leaves no answers and no one happier than they were on Page 1, and about which du Maurier herself was remarkably cavalier.

What about the hero of The House on the Strand? What did it mean when he dropped the telephone at the end of the book? I don’t really know, but I rather think he was going to be paralysed for life. Don’t you?

 The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter

Infernal Desires

Imagine a Luis Bunuel film or a Dali landscape in prose form, and you are halfway close to understanding this deeply surreal and subversive work by Angela Carter. The book narrates the travails of Desiderio fighting against the machines of the super villain Doctor Hoffman, struggling to separate reality from an altered version made up of everything he “desires”; and of beautiful Albertina- who may just be a manifestation of Desiderio’s desires, but has sexual desires of her own?

While academics love to talk about this book’s potent ideas of feminism, determinism and more- it works just as well as a picaresque adventure like Don Quixote.  If you enjoy the world-bending stories of Murakami, you will adore Carter’s brilliant fiction.

Women Characters in Sci-Fi By Male Authors

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about women in science fiction without referencing some of the male writers who have created fully realised female protagonists, characters who are more than just a body or a wish-fulfilment mechanism. Here are some of our favourites.

Victoria McQueen- Nos4A2 by Joe Hill

“Men, she thought, were one of the world’s few sure comforts, like a fire on a cold October night, like cocoa, like broken-in-slippers. Their clumsy affections, their bristly faces, and their willingness to do what needed to be done – cook an omelette, change lightbulbs, make with hugging – sometimes almost made being a woman fun”

We’ve asked you to read this book more than once, haven’t we? And if you still haven’t picked it up then you are missing out on a fabulous story that is part sci-fi (some travel across different realities may be involved),  part horror, and part a wonderful revenge fantasy along the lines of the Bride’s revenge in Kill Bill. Vic McQueen as a character is near perfect. She is capable of fighting for herself and her family, and also just sit back and become a world famous children’s book writer when she wants to.  She is driven by demons but refuses to apologise for her moroseness by acting as sunshine and light the way women are expected to.  And the book itself is a zippy read for when you don’t want to think too much!

Lyra Belacqua/Mrs. Coulter- His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman

“The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and she dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else.”

One of our lasting pop culture regrets is just how terrible the movie adaptation of The Golden Compass was. We would have loved to see a cinematic version that depicted the pull and repulsion between Lyra-representing youth and innocence ;  and Mrs. Coulter- as a symbol of authority and corruption, that matches the one in the book. For now we will contend ourselves with immersing ourselves in this three parter with two interesting female driving forces, and a third in the form of physicist Mary Malone who is a tale for another list!

Deryn Sharp- Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld


We love this steampunk novel with its descriptions of giant airwhales, kraken, zeppelin and other astounding Darwinistic machineries. But what we love most of all is young Deryn Sharp, a young girl who just wants to fly.  Since women are not allowed to do so in Westerfeld’s imagined world, she has no choice but to pretend to be a young boy called Dylan. Deryn/Dylan is stubborn and arrogant , but also has a strong “air-sense” and love for adventure  We like the way she never backs down from a  fight, and the fierce loyalty she displays towards her crew members and family, and how she keeps pushing back a romance with Alek to continue to fly like Dylan just one more time!

Ellie Arroway -Contact by Carl Sagan

Perhaps the depth of love can be calibrated by the number of different selves that are actively involved in a given relationship

When we first read the book as a teenager we wanted to be Ellie Arroway, a woman who along with Ripley from the Aliens movie, represents the sort of competence and composure that is (unfortunately) rare in female characters. Sagan wastes little time in building a world or a character, choosing instead to focus on the science and theory behind his thesis. But what little we learn of Ellie- her intellectual rigour, her rationality, and her insistence on finding answers, make her a woman worth emulating and learning from. And we can’t help admire her struggle as she searches for answers about religion, other worlds and love, each with the same rigour as she does the definition of Pi.

Who did we miss? Tell us in the comments below. We are always looking for new book recommendations, and are just about done with those FB Top 10 Lists!


My Big Red Bag brings original content inspired by life’s joys and passions. Find more fun lists and features in our Literature section, and stay tuned to our latest content by following us on Twitter and FB!

Photo Credit: Catherinette Rings Steampunk via Compfight cc

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